Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health These 10 Ways

The vagus nerve is the longest set of nerves in our body. It bridges the gap that ultimately becomes our gut-brain-axis. Neural tissues protruding from the vagus nerve touch every major organ in our body, including the lungs, heart, and intestines. Based on the interactions from cells and microbes in these areas, the mind can oversee any problems within the system. Therefore, learning how to stimulate your vagus nerve to provide positive impulses can improve your mental and gut health.

Why Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Mental Health?

The vagus nerve just wants some peace

Our vagus nerve essentially governs our parasympathetic system. Therefore, it regulates how relaxed we are in tense situations. When the vagus nerve is unhappy, it generates a response from our sympathetic system. This reaction causes us to produce cortisol and enter fight-or-flight mode.

One of the biggest disruptors of our vagus nerve is stress. When we encounter daily stress, it causes your adrenal glands to release cortisol. The more stress we experience, the more cortisol we produce. In turn, the vagus nerve senses we are under attack. Consequently, we feel more stressed, further impeding on our mental health.

Why Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Gut Health

Since the vagus nerve regulates the parasympathetic system, it also impacts other vital functions of our body. The parasympathetic system plays a critical role in our immune system and digestion of food [1].

When our vagus nerve isn’t working correctly, it creates an environment in the gut biome conducive to pathogenic stomach bacteria growth. One study looked at the connection between moderate vagus nerve activity and Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth (SIBO).

Researchers hypothesized,

“One important function of the autonomic nervous system is promotion of GI motility via cholinergic fibers of the vagus nerve. A potential consequence of vagal nerve fiber loss is slowed motility, particularly in the stomach and proximal small intestine, where vagal contact with enteric neurons is especially rich, and where the migrating motor complex depends on vagal integrity. With slowed motility, there is a propensity for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO); this in turn can promote bacterial translocation and drive inflammation [2].”

AIDS

We rely on the vagus nerve to move the GI tract. When the vagus nerve doesn’t perform optimally, your intestines and colon will miss vital cues, impeding on our gut motility. As a result, you can end up with toxins and solid food particles in your bloodstream that spark inflammation.

How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve

Your vagus nerve is pretty much at the core of your body. It’s protected by layers of fat, skin, and blood. How on earth can you stimulate your vagus nerve when it’s tucked away so deep in there?

Don’t stress it. You’ll only make your vagus nerve more upset. Here are 10 ways to stimulate your vagus nerve.

Deep-Breathing

The most reliable tool you have to stimulate your vagus nerve lies deep inside of you. It’s the breath that circulates your entire body, including the vagus nerve itself [3].

deep breathing stimulate your vagus nerve
Woosah

During tense moments, we tend to ball up. Fists get clenched, teeth get gritted, and shoulders get hunched. All of these make it harder for us to breathe. Naturally, this sends the vagus nerve into panic mode.

One study looked at the influence of breath on the parasympathetic nervous system. Researchers compared the anxiety levels of ten healthy men performing various deep and rapid breathing techniques.

Results found,

“During prolonged expiratory breathing, parasympathetic nervous function was significantly activated. Conversely, during rapid breathing, parasympathetic nervous function was significantly suppressed [4]. “

Ment Illn.

Next time you’re feeling stressed, take a deep breath. Pay attention to your inhales and exhales, shutting out any negative thoughts. Aim to get as much air as deep down your diaphragm as you can get.

This area is where the most sensitive area of the vagus nerve lives. Therefore, you stimulate your vagus nerve from top to bottom as you master your deep-breathing techniques.

Cultivating robust deep-breathing techniques is made easier by those who follow regular meditation routines. When you meditate, you concentrate as inhales and exhales. As you virtually hypnotize yourself, your breaths get naturally deeper.

Massages

As if you need an excuse for a spa day. Now, your spa day can be written off as a mental health day. Getting a massage can help you stimulate your vagus nerve.

reflexology stimulate your vagus nerve
Reflexology can stimulate your vagus nerve

For one, massages are relaxing. When you are relaxed, it triggers a response from the parasympathetic nervous system. Anytime the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, you stimulate your vagus nerve.

Don’t have the time or money for a massage? Offer up some self-love (or have a spouse do it). For one, rub your feet. Reflexology believes that there are many nerve points along the curvature of our feet that activate the vagus nerve.

Research also indicates that massaging your carotid sinus can stimulate your vagus nerve [5]. This area is around the right side of your throat, a little down from your jawline. When you rub the cartoid sinus, it causes a baroceptor reflex that will stimulate your vagus nerve.

Laughter

laughter to stimulate your vagus nerve
Healthy vagus nerve exercise
in action

Laughter is the best medicine, and unless you’re going to a comedy club, it’s mostly free! Not only does laughter make us feel good emotionally, but it also causes a positive reverberation inside your system.

Think about the hardest laughing fit. You’re gasping for air, right? It’s almost like deep breathing.

When we laugh, the vibrations are felt deep in our diaphragm. During the biggest giggle fit, you draw in long breaths that are fill up the diaphragm and stimulate your vagus nerve [6].

Singing

Want to stimulate your vagus nerve? Sing like no one’s listening. For the benefit of others’ ears, that might be a good thing!

singing to stimulate your vagus nerve
Let it out!

Like laughter, the reverberations of singing will stimulate your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is connected to the larynx. It exchanges electrodes with our voice box, making our world tours in the shower therapeutic!

Research on singing and the vagus nerve is minimal. However, scientists have experimented with causing 20 Hz and 40 Hz vibrations in the larynx [7]. These frequencies mimic some of the harmonies we hit when we sing. Results were promising that singing can stimulate your vagus nerve.

Singing not your thing? Try other ways to exercise your larynx. Try humming or gargling instead. Any movement in the voicebox may stimulate your vagus nerve.

Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) Therapy

PEMF is a lot like the larynx experiment we discussed in the previous section. This practice uses electromagnetic waves to stimulate your vagus nerve. It performs this by introducing brief bursts of electromagnetic waves at low frequencies. Therefore, you shouldn’t experience adverse effects that performing the same task that microwaves would.

Our body is comprised of cells with positive and negative charges. Over time, cells will lose their charge, ultimately becoming useless debris in the system. PEMF is a lot like using a defibrillator on a heart. It’s a jolt of energy to add some life back into waning cells. In turn, these cells provide less stress on the system. As we noted, less stress will help you stimulate your vagus nerve.

Exercise

Want to feel good? An excellent way to achieve that is by looking good. Exercise is the ultimate activity for finding balance between the gut and brain. You burn off the unhealthy foods you consume while building up your confidence by looking fit.

An analysis by Psychology Today explained,

“Tonic levels of aerobic exercise stimulate your vagus nerve and lower stress responses associated with “fight-or-flight” mechanisms. Tonic levels of low, moderate, and vigorous physical activity also improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals [8].”

Psychology Today

Not to mention, exercise releases endorphins. Ask any runner, the high they feel afterward makes them feel on top of the world. This sort of confidence causes your sympathetic system to relax, which will naturally stimulate your vagus nerve.

Eat Omega-3s

We hear so much negativity about fatty foods. However, you need fats in a mental health diet. It’s the source of these fats that matter.

Get your omega on!

Many of us get more than our fair share of omega-6 fatty acids. These are found in red meat, dairy, and vegetable oils. However, we need three times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids to bring balance to our system. Otherwise, the vagal tone of the vagus nerve slows down.

While eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is essential for cellular function, make sure you get plenty of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in your diet. About 90% of the omega-3s in our brain is built with DHA.

Furthermore, DHA helps maintain the membranes of brain cells [9]. So, be sure to stock up fish oil, nuts, and seeds to get high-quality DHA that will stimulate your vagus nerve.

Cold Therapy

Embrace the cold

You know the saying “hot and bothered?” There’s a reason why they go hand-in-hand. Anyone who is overly hot can get a bit cranky. Your vagus nerve isn’t much different.

Cold therapy can actually help you stimulate your vagus nerve. When we’re cold, we slow down. That includes your heart rate. As a result, your parasympathetic system interprets this slower rate as a form of relaxation. So, by being cold, you can trick your vagus nerve!

One study on cold therapy and vagus nerve stimulation found,

“Data analysis of 61 participants (after exclusion of outliers) showed a main effect and an interaction effect for body location and for condition, for both heart rate and heart rate variability. The results demonstrate a pattern of cardiovascular reactivity to cold stimulation, suggesting an increase in cardiac-vagal activation. The effect was significant for cold stimulation in the lateral neck area [10].”

JMIR Form Res.

In addition, the cold activates cholinergic neurons. These neurological influencers tend to use acetylcholine (ACh) to communicate. ACh is essential for our somatic system, which contracts muscles, including gut motility [11]. Therefore, cold therapy can stimulate your vagus nerve and improve your gut health.

Intermittent Fasting

Our body is hard at work all day long. Between dealing with our mental stressors, it must deal with physical obstacles, too. These hurdles are the foods we eat.

intermittent fasting for gut health
Learn More About Intermittent Fasting Benefits

We overload our system with allergen-rich foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy oils. All of these poor dietary decisions may result in a low vagus nerve tone.

The vagus nerve can detect blood glucose levels in the system via impulses sent from the liver [12]. When blood glucose runs lows during an intermittent fasting protocol, the vagus nerve lets the brain know. This communication between gut and brain will naturally stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s like the joy you feel when you touch base with your bestie.

Furthermore, intermittent fasting causes your body to produce more Neuropeptide Y (NPY). NPY is the most abundant peptide in the central nervous system. It also influences the limbic system, which regulates our mood and emotional behaviors.

Probiotics

Perhaps there are no greater influencers along the gut-brain-axis than our intestinal flora. When pathogenic stomach bacteria overrun your gut biome, it creates a breeding ground for inflammation. Seeing as the vagus nerve ends at the top of the gut, its most sensitive area is prone to the fiery pits of an inflamed gut.

gut health diet
Take the time to Thryve Inside

One way probiotics influence the vagus nerve is by helping to fight off inflammation [13]. When the balance in your microbiome shifts back to beneficial bacteria, it positively impacts your immune system, heart health, and other factors that may lower your vagal tone.

In addition, probiotics boost the production of beneficial neurotransmitters that affect our mental health. One study looking at the connection between Lactobacillus rhamnosus and the vagus nerve saw that this probiotic bacteria improved levels of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain [14]. GABA is responsible for controlling our fear and anxiety.

Researchers found that this probiotic bacteria stimulated the vagus nerve. Based on the interaction, the body produced more GABA.

One of the bacteria strains we have in our custom probiotics supplements is of the Lactobacillus rhamnosus species. You can get your gut tested with us to see if you have adequate levels of this probiotic in your gut biome. If not, we can tailor a blend to meet your needs.

Thryve Probiotics Gut Health

Resources

[1] Breit, Sigrid, et al. “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Feb. 2018, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044/full.

[2] Robinson-Papp, J., Nmashie, A., Pedowitz, E., Benn, E., George, M. C., Sharma, S., … Morgello, S. (2018). Vagal dysfunction and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth: novel pathways to chronic inflammation in HIV. AIDS (London, England)32(9), 1147–1156. doi:10.1097/QAD.0000000000001802

[3] Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience12, 397. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397

[4] Komori T. (2018). The relaxation effect of prolonged expiratory breathing. Mental illness10(1), 7669. doi:10.4081/mi.2018.7669

[5] Pirahanchi Y, Bordoni B. Anatomy, Head and Neck, Carotid Baroreceptors. [Updated 2019 Jan 17]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537223/

[6] Bergland, Christopher. “How Self-Initiated Laughter Can Make You Feel Better.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 18 Sept. 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201609/how-self-initiated-laughter-can-make-you-feel-better.

[7] Lundy, D S, et al. “Effects of Vagal Nerve Stimulation on Laryngeal Function.” Journal of Voice : Official Journal of the Voice Foundation, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 1993, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8293068.

[8] Bergland, Christopher. “Tonic Levels of Physical Activity Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 18 May 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/tonic-levels-physical-activity-stimulate-your-vagus-nerve.

[9] “New Study Links DHA Type of Omega-3 to Better Nervous-System Function.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 19 Dec. 2009, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091216130718.htm.

[10] Jungmann, M., Vencatachellum, S., Van Ryckeghem, D., & Vögele, C. (2018). Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR formative research2(2), e10257. doi:10.2196/10257

[11] Sanders, K. M., Koh, S. D., Ro, S., & Ward, S. M. (2012). Regulation of gastrointestinal motility–insights from smooth muscle biology. Nature reviews. Gastroenterology & hepatology9(11), 633–645. doi:10.1038/nrgastro.2012.168

[12] Székely, M. “The Vagus Nerve in Thermoregulation and Energy Metabolism.” Autonomic Neuroscience : Basic & Clinical, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 Dec. 2000, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11189024.

[13] Plaza-Díaz, J., Ruiz-Ojeda, F. J., Vilchez-Padial, L. M., & Gil, A. (2017). Evidence of the Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Probiotics and Synbiotics in Intestinal Chronic Diseases. Nutrients9(6), 555. doi:10.3390/nu9060555

[14] Bravo, Javier A, et al. “Ingestion of Lactobacillus Strain Regulates Emotional Behavior and Central GABA Receptor Expression in a Mouse via the Vagus Nerve.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Sciences, 20 Sept. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21876150.